A week on Mukojima

 

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Shun-san, Deguchi-san and Isono-san on Mukojima.

I’ve spent the last 10 months teasing apart some of the differences and similarities between Japan and the US.  And while there are many things that set the two countries apart, one striking similarity is the zealousness of conservation biologists, particularly those who work out in the field. A field biologist is a field biologist is a field biologist, regardless of where they are born and raised. It’s a case of convergent evolution, with maybe some selection for personality types predisposed to appreciate playing in the mud.

In early September, representatives from many of my placements over the coming year gathered at the office of the National Personnel Authority in Tokyo. Since the fellowship focuses on federal agencies, there were a lot of suits.

I was in a suit. My fellow Fellows were all in suits. And a majority of the agency representatives were in suits. And then there was one man sitting in the front row, more casually dressed, snazzy glasses, slightly bemused, …definitely not impressed by the suits. This was Dr. Tomohiro Deguchi of the Yamashina Institute for Ornithology. A field biologist.

For more than 10 years, Dr. Deguchi-san’s main mission has been the reintroduction of short-tailed albatross to a remote, protected island. He, and his research partners, are essentially saving this critically endangered species. As I’m writing this, I realize he could easily have belonged in the book Last Chance to See by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine.

Suits, are not his style.

StudySiteDeguchi

Deguchi-san in his natural environment. He is in the lower left of the frame.

Between February 20th– March 5th I had the great fortune to work with the Yamashina Institute for Ornithology, which included two days of introduction to the research done by the Institute from their headquarters office in Abiko, to spending a week at the remote, uninhabited island of Mukojima.

Mud was involved. But so was the incomparable opportunity to camp on this protected island and participate in field observations of this new colony of short-tailed albatross.

Background: I’m going to skip over many of the details here, but short-tailed albatross (アホウドリ , or ahoudori in Japanese), were hunted to near extinction in the 1800s. During surveys in 1939 and 1949 there wasn’t a single short-tail albatross found. They reappeared on the Torishima (Bird Island) in 1951 and on the Senkaku Islands in 1971. Since then the population has increased to approximately 3500 animals, mostly on Torishima (there might be around 350 animals on the Senkaku Islands but because of political tensions, surveys have been impossible there). The big problem here is that Torishima, the main, almost only, breeding location for this endangered species, is under threat of a volcanic eruption.

Life history details: Albatross are long-lived birds who spend the first 4-5 years of their lives at sea. Let that sink in for a minute. They then return to their area of their birth to find a mating partner and breed. From that point forward they spend their summers and autumn feeding in the northern latitudes, and return to (usually) their exact breeding area in the winter and summer to mate (with the same mate; they are monogamous) and raise chicks. It is believed that they imprint on their geographic location very early, which meant that if researchers wanted to expand the short-tail albatross range to include areas not under political dispute or risk of volcanic eruption, they had to do it at an early life stage.

Enter Deguchi-san and team. Between 2008-2012 they translocated a total of 70 chicks by helicopter from Torishima to the uninhabited and volcanically inert, Mukojima. This effort took place after two years of test relocations with less endangered species with similar life history habits (Laysan albatross chicks were translocated from Sand Island to Kauai, and black-footed albatross chicks were moved from Nakodojima to Mukojima).

The short-tail albatross translocations to Mukojima were a success, with 99% of the chicks fledging. The next test would be to see whether the adults returned to Mukojima after their 4-5 years at sea, and then to see whether they would mate and successfully rear chicks there (Deguchi et al., 2013).

In 2011 the first Mukojima raised chick, Y-01, returned to Mukojima. He paired with a female (raised in the wild) and they laid their first egg in 2012. Two more eggs were laid in subsequent years, and then in the fourth year a chick hatched and successfully fledged (yay!). Another translocated bird (Y11) paired with a non-translocated albatross and hatched a chick on neighboring Nakoudojima. (Deguchi et al. 2016).

Then, in 2016 Y01 and his mate had another chick on Mukojima, Y76, who I got to watch through binoculars and long-range scope in February. This was the fourth short-tail chick to hatch on Mukojima and neighboring islands. I felt a particular affinity for this chick who has the same number as my birth year. I plan to follow his/her success through life.

Another exciting event was the sighting of M170 who is the daughter of Y11 referred to above. Since M170 was reared on Nakoudojima it was meaningful for her to show up in Mukojima, giving rise to hopes that she might decide to mate and raise her chicks there instead (thereby growing and giving strength to this new colony).

I will let the photo essay below tell more of the story of my week on Mukojima.

 

IMG_0023

To get to the Ogasawara Archipelago requires a 24-hour ferry ride from Tokyo to Chichijima. I made some friends. Chichijima (Father Island) and neighboring Hahajima (Mother Island) are home to a lot of young people who have sought a simpler life, with closer ties to nature. I can respect that. I can envy that.

 

OgawaraHumpbackProject

Dr. Okamoto-san (of Ogasawara Whale Watching Association, red jacket) and a team of researchers from Hokkaido University under Dr. Mitani-san (brown sweatshirt).

Chichijima1

Chichijima. Just beautiful.

fishingboatferry

But Chichijima was not our destination. We were headed to Mukojima, which required a 3 hour journey by chartered fishing boat. (A fishing boat, I might add, with an exceptional captain. Extremely safety conscious and capable of piloting us back through some nasty seas when we needed to get back to Chichijima to catch the ferry. I don’t remember his name, but I was impressed.)

MukojimaTeeth

First view of Mukojima (on the left)…

MukojimaFirstLook

…and the wildlife.

Beachlanding

This was taken from a small zodiac as we ferried to the beach. The captain had to get back to Chichijima that night because the following day was his wife’s birthday.

campsite2

The camp. There are two groups that regularly camp on the island. The albatross researchers from Yamashina, and seasonal workers hired by the Tokyo Metropolitan government to remove invasive species.  This is the Yamashina camp. No one else is normally allowed on the island.

StudySiteDistance

On the first night we headed up to the study site to check on the albatross and deliver some basic equipment. It’s about a 30 minute commute (by foot) from the campsite to the study site. Because of the island’s protected status we’re allowed to only walk along the path from the camp to the study site. But as you’ll see in the next photos, that’s plenty.

MukojimaYomejima

Mukojima means groom, or husband, island. In the distance is Yomejima, or bride or wife island. In between is Nakoudojima, where M170 was hatched. Nakoudojima is ‘matchmaker island’.

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One of the sights along the ‘commute’. One afternoon I stopped and counted at least five groups of humpback whales within just 5 minutes from this spot.

blackfootmatingdance

A pair of black-footed albatross. They were frequently close by the trail.

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The two specs on the ridge are Isono-san and Lena-san. During WWII the trees on Mukojima were used for target practice by war ships and the remaining were killed off by goats, so the island is mostly barren which gives it a spartan, moorish feeling.

Cooking

Back at camp, Deguchi-san and Shun-san are cooking. In theory we took turns cooking, but I think Lena and I benefitted from more nights where we just tried to help or stay out of the way. There were 5 of us in the camp. Deguchi-san, Shun-san (ex-dive instructor who had spent time in Fiji, Guam and Australia and who has now settled in Chichijima and is a superb field guy), Isono-san (who has worked with Deguchi-san several times and is an experienced field biologist having worked all over the world and now is based in Hahajima), Lena (a German biologist who has been living in Japan this past year to work on her Japanese), and myself.

dinner

Dinner by headlamp.

 

Slide1

Here is another view of the study site. In the lower right you see the field observation ‘station’, where two people would set up with scope, binoculars, camera and data sheets. We’d record every 15 minutes how many of each species were present. First we’d count any short-tailed albatross, then black-footed, and finally any Laysan. A majority of the white birds you see in that photo are 55 large fiberglass decoys. The decoys and a looped recording of albatross calls are meant to help attract other short-tailed albatross to the colony.

ObservationSite

A closer view of the study site. From left to right are Lena-san, Isono-san, Deguchi-san, and Shun-san.  Normally there would only be two people on shift. There are three, 3-hour shifts per day, and observations are conducted each year from November to March.

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Isono-san headed back to camp.

BlackfootChick3

Black-footed albatross chick and adult.

Communication

A little interspecies communication. Black-footed albatross on left. Laysan albatross on the right.

water jugs

Everything has to be carried in, including drinking water.

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The path to the beach.

water

Clear waters, but the beaches are still plagued by trash that washes up with every tide.

blackfoot

Awwww.

 

Deguchi et al., 2016. Translocation and hand-rearing result in short-tailed albatrosses returning to breed in the Ogasawara Islands 80 years after extirpation. Animal Conservation.

Deguchi et al., 2013. Translocation and hand-rearing of the short-tailed albatross Phoebastria albatrus: early indicators of success for species conservation and island restoration. Oryx 48(2), 195-203.

 

 

 

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